Greece Abandons Sharia Law Resolution of Muslim Family Law Disputes

I came across a story about this (thanks to InstaPundit for the pointer), and I asked Prof. Robin Fretwell Wilson (Washington & Lee) for her thoughts, since she has written on this Greek practice. (Note that the old Greek regime didn’t just enforce religious arbitration agreements entered by the parties. Rather, it specifically routed Muslim family law questions to Sharia courts, regardless of whether the parties had agreed to this.) Here’s Prof. Wilson’s comment:

On August 21st, Greek Newspapers reported that new Family Law reforms jettison the practice of allowing Sharía Law to govern family matters for a Muslim enclave of over 110,000 living in Western Thrace. This is a good thing (as I argue in a new chapter entitled “The Perils of Privatized Marriage, forthcoming in Marriage and Divorce in a Multicultural Context: Multi-Tiered Marriage and the Boundaries of Civil Law and Religion (Joel A. Nichols, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2011) because women in systems of religious deference frequently get a raw deal.

Prior to this change, fundamentalist religious understandings were given the force of law by delegating jurisdiction to religious groups to decide family disputes, with nominal State oversight. As a result of the Treaty of Lausanne, signed by Turkey and Greece in 1923, Muslims in Greece enjoyed unique independence from the Greek government. They maintained their own religious and legal institutions, headed by three Muftis who “conduct[ed] all matters related to civil law” using Sharía law, specifically Hanafi law.

As I document here, Hanafi law departs significantly from the Greek civil law that would otherwise protect Muslim women upon divorce in a number of important ways. A 2008 study of divorce within Western Thrace explained that

[U]nder Islamic law the wife must compensate her husband for the termination of the marriage … by returning the dower (mahr) … [and] by waiving her right to alimony or even her right to the custody of the children.”

If the husband did not agree to the divorce, the wife could terminate the marriage only for important reasons pertaining to the husband’s fault. While the Greek Muftis sometimes accepted a fault-based reason, like a husband’s violence, “the Mufti[s] often rejected divorce applications filed by women, who thus remain[ed] trapped in non-functioning marriages.”

Prior to the new Greek reforms, Muslim women could seek to divorce through the Greek courts, but almost no one disputed the authority of the Muftis, even when facing an unfavorable outcome. On the rare occasion that someone did dispute a Mufti’s decision, Greek courts routinely found it enforceable. One study found that Greek civil courts denied enforceability in less than one-half of one percent of cases. That low rate is not surprising since civil review of the Muftis’ judgments was limited to “whether the Mufti re¬mained within his field of competence and whether the law applied contravenes the [Greek] Constitution.”

A number of problems followed from this lack of review. A Muslim woman who was disadvantaged by it effectively had no recourse from the Mufti’s judgment, nor was there any guarantee that like cases would be treated alike.

As I argued in a 2007 Washington & Lee Law Review Symposium, in some instances, the harsh consequences to a woman of divorcing, including “the prospect of certain poverty … will surely … force [some women] to stay in an abusive relationship.”

Ironically, however, a movement has gained momentum in pockets across the world to allow the harsh religious norms rejected by Greece to govern family matters not only upon divorce, but also upon death. In 2008, the British government “quietly sanctioned the powers for Sharía judges to rule on cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving domestic violence.” This system of religious arbitration took root despite a fire¬storm of controversy that erupted in early 2008 when the Archbishop of Canterbury called for a “plural jurisdiction” in which Muslims could choose to resolve family disputes in religious tribunals or in British courts. The Bishop of Rochester predicted that “[i]t would be impossible to introduce a tradition like Sharía into [the] corpus [of British law] without fundamentally affecting its integrity.” Nick Clegg, Britain’s Liberal Democrat leader, stated that “[e]quality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another.”

Despite the controversy, eighty-five Sharía courts now operate in Great Britain, serving a Muslim population of more than 1.5 million people. These Islamic tribunals capitalize on Great Britain’s Arbitration Act, pursuant to which the judgments reached in binding arbitration are civilly enforced. And like in Western Thrace, the effect of such arbitrations is to leave women significantly worse off than they would have been under British law.

Since the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for a “plural jurisdiction,” I have argued that courts should refuse to enforce any ruling from a religious tribunal that leaves a woman worse off than she would have been in a conventional divorce. On June 7, 2011, proposed legislation introduced in the British House of Lords by Baroness Cox would force Islamic courts to acknowledge the primacy of British law.

While some U.S. academics are a lot less concerned about the risks to women and children than I am, I believe states should weigh carefully the risks to vulnerable groups before ceding jurisdiction over family matters to bodies that may be unwilling or unable to vindicate their rights. The movement to introduce religious fundamentalism into the family can have dire consequences for women and children who are deserving of the State’s protection, as Greece recognized this week.

I’m not sure that I agree with Prof. Wilson about whether courts should enforce religious arbitration agreements (especially when those agreements deal only with property settlement, and not with child custody). But I do think that the Greek system, in which Muslim disputes were automatically sent to Islamic tribunals, is probably bad, and is certainly not the sort of thing that would be permissible in America.